It has been a difficult week for liberalism in the world. The notion that people ought to respect the election results even if it puts in power those they oppose isn’t working. The idea that cosmopolitanism – diversity and respect for other cultures – is better than everyone looking and thinking the same seems to be literally under attack in Europe.
But perhaps our liberal institutions can shield us and help us ride through the rough times. Lets see.
We were told a hundred times “Donald Trump can’t win.” Yet this week he accepts the nomination as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. The concept of being a nation of immigrants doesn’t matter to the man. The Washington Post reports that he doesn’t read. He doesn’t need to since his gut tells him what to do.
We were told “Britain could never vote to leave the EU.” But by a 4 point margin, the people did just that even though the process is designed to make that outcome nearly impossible. Even with more than 40% of the population of London being foreign-born, and nearly all major cities voting to stay in, the countryside turned out to vote Leave.
The Swedes agonized that “Swedish culture prides itself on welcoming immigrants.” Or at least they thought so when those immigrants were European Bosnians who were Muslim in name only. Now Sweden has such a problem with its immigrant Muslim population that the once-welcoming country has closed its doors and is trying to figure out how to stop attacks on women without offending their recent arrivals who make up a significant population in Stockholm.
Turkey presently is led by an autocrat that recently built himself a 10,000 room (not a misprint) presidential palace with taxpayer money. Erdogan, who said that one of the greatest modern evils is social media, relied on that social media to defeat last weekend’s coup.
In the words of one old D.C. hand: “To make sure nobody can organize another attempt to bring down my government, I’ll fire TWELVE THOUSAND armed and trained military and police officers. That way, they’ll have no way to make a living and nothing to do all day except think about what a great leader I am and how wrong they were to oppose me. Then I’ll fire the top 3,000 legal minds in the nation, to make sure they don’t get any ideas either.” It seems to me that those lists were either drawn up awfully fast or else were already kept in a drawer in case something like this ever came up. Is it any wonder why some people see Turkey not as a stable NATO member, but as the next country for the Islamic State to call home?
And yet the West fiddles while France burns and plays Pokemon Go and is told to “trust” that everything will work out well and challenge “everyone to respect democratic institutions.”
But reality shows that Austria, France, Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and the US are all either seeing strong right-wing challenges to their governments or have already elected them to office. And when your country’s constitution says that those with the most votes wins, then the people get what they wanted. Just search for the words “illiberal democracy” to see what is happening around the world, not just in Europe.
But lets not look down our noses at the will of the people in all these countries. For decades the people have been fed a steady diet of illiberal policies through opaque processes. Who can truly say they understand the way laws are made within their countries or within the EU? If you really do, then your country is probably doing ok.
As James Traub, of Foreign Policy, writes, liberalism (respecting or at the very least tolerating others and the decisions of elections) is in danger in Europe where the EU makes decisions through an opaque process. It’s not working in Europe where children of immigrants terrorize their countrymen. It’s not working in the US where people with little hope of meaningful employment believe that immigrants are taking all the jobs (even if the Americans wouldn’t likely work in them).
And this past week we hear President Obama say that globalization is here to stay and that the jobs lost aren’t coming back. The very issue so concerning to so many is not necessarily disregarded by elites, but those elites seem to think that the people are too insignificant to explain things to. The people just have to accept things the elites do for their own good.
Until, that is, the people decide they’ve had enough and vote for radical change. And when elites charge the people with ignorance or racism in an attempt to shame them back in their boxes, at some point that doesn’t work. People do vote. And sometimes they vote for an illiberal democrat.
A friend from DC who was often in the White House across multiple presidencies said that many Americans have, indeed, had enough of experts and elites, for three main reasons:
So perhaps our people will elect an illiberal autocrat. But we’ve had those in our history. And so have other countries. And yes, sometimes it produced a Hitler or a Mussolini or an Andrew Jackson. But that doesn’t necessarily mean war is on the horizon. Viktor Orban hasn’t invaded one of Hungary’s neighbors. Neither has Poland, and likely neither will Marine LePen if she wins in France.
Listen, I’m certainly not advocating for illiberalism. I’ve written on numerous occasions about the importance of learning about others, of traveling to new places, eating new foods, incorporating new customs. I agree with James Traub that rationalism is at stake and that some politicians are exploiting an anti-intellectual narrative by whipping up the masses against “the system.”
But at some point, the people who are told to be rational rebel against those who themselves have not owned up to the natural consequences of their policies. And in the end, the people get what they deserve. They have a right to be wrong. We just have to hope that the potential wrong brought about by the populist won’t cause some greater problems down the road than the ones that got them elected.